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Skip to 0 minutes and 12 secondsBetween 2016 and 2018 international NGO Ground Truth Solutions ran surveys in nine countries, some affected by disaster including Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia as well as countries receiving refugee populations. Nearly 10,000 people were asked to provide their views on the performance and the value of the humanitarian system they encountered. The findings were mixed. Generally, people said they felt safe where they now lived and treated with respect. However, people felt they were not consulted about the aid they were given and there was little consideration of how they become more self-reliant in the future. These girls are great I really like this picture. Very nice shots and it shows good engagement of community.

Skip to 1 minute and 12 secondsThese photos are very interesting to observe because it tells you a lot about the communities that we need to be engaged with. They live in disaster vulnerable countries and they definitely need help from us. I can see the gender difference, community difference, society difference, demographic, social and economic differences in the photos. So we need to hear everyone's voices when we are working in disaster interventions, evaluation and learning. Why? because they could become first responders in the future. They might find themselves tackling health and sanitation issues, teaching or even keeping others safe. Some of these things need to be done immediately after a disaster occurrence. Some within a few days, some within a few weeks. Don't forget disasters do not wait.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 secondsTrying to engage communities if we can't break the ice creates problems. We cannot engage them without their trust. This is why we need community leaders like teachers and doctors to help you gain access to the community in need. Shoji Hasegawa is an advisor to the Japan International Cooperation Agency. He helps communities to build capacity and he knows how difficult it can be to talk to them. In Pakistan especially, there are big issues with security. For example, at

Skip to 2 minutes and 40 secondsthe border of Afghanistan, foreigners will not be able to go to the borders because of the security issues, so we invite the local people to Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan, to take training. Pakistan is an Islamic country. I'm from Japan, I'm a Buddhist. Buddhist is different from Muslim culture, so that is a big challenge, how we can train the people from the community. We can provide some materials - some training modules - but to take the training to community level, the community leader has to make some training. If we train the Imam, for example, this is the evacuation route, this is the evacuation site, all the people from the community will follow it.

Skip to 3 minutes and 41 secondsSo you see it's vital that we find a way to involve the communities we're helping. What are your experiences engaging communities. Take part in the conversations over the coming weeks to share your views.

The need to improve engagement and participation of affected populations

The ambition

The need to strengthen the voice and agency of affected populations within all aspects of decisions has been a common concern highlighted in much of the literature relating to humanitarian accountability.

Participation in this context is defined by CHS and the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) as

‘Enabling crisis-affected people to play an active role in the decision-making processes that affect them. It is achieved through the establishment of clear guidelines and practices to engage them appropriately and ensure that the most marginalised and worst affected are represented and have influence.’

(CHS Alliance 2018:28)

To understand different dimensions of participation, the Red Cross Movement in its 2016 guide to Community Engagement and Accountability makes a clear link between pro-active engagement with communities and the achievement of accountable outcomes. They argue that:

  • Involving and listening to people’s needs and opinions results in better programme results

  • Open and honest communication improves acceptance and trust

  • The information from feedback and complaints is the best way to improve programme design and implementation

  • It can also act as an early warning of corruption or sexual exploitation and abuse

  • By treating the community as partners, it moves away from treating people as helpless victims and supports them to find solutions to their problems and helps them to be better connected

  • It can help people to adopt safer and healthier practice through awareness raising work

  • Constant, open communication reduces the risk of unintended consequences (do no harm)

  • It also helps to manage community expectations

(ICRC/IFRC 2016)

There has been no shortage of initiatives since the 1990s aimed at improving participation. The creation of ALNAP, the Sphere Guidelines, HAP and its successor, the CHS Alliance are among a long list of initiatives that have addressed this issue.

The reality

Progress has been made. The CHS Alliance 2018 report summarises surveys done by Ground Truth Solutions in nine countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, as well as countries like Austria and Turkey, which have experienced substantial increases in migrant or refugee populations. Nearly 10,000 people were asked to provide their views of the performance and value to them of the humanitarian system. (CHS Alliance 2018).

The findings were mixed, with generally positive views about feeling safe in their place of residence and feeling treated with respect by aid workers. But this is balanced by respondents not feeling consulted sufficiently about the aid they receive and with limited consideration given to how they will become more self-reliant in the future (CHS Alliance 2018: 24).

Participatory development tools, such as community mapping, seasonal calendars and different ranking techniques are increasingly mainstreamed within assessment processes and are accompanied by greater efforts to reach different marginalised and vulnerable groups.

There has also been progress in introducing communication and feedback/complaints mechanisms, but the challenge remains in systematically involving affected populations in decision making processes.

There is an argument that engagement with affected populations needs to be taken to another level. One suggestion is to adopt a more robust, business-oriented approach, treating them like customers (CHS Alliance 2015).

At present, there is still inconsistent effort to regularly monitor and respond to their feedback and views an approach that a business could not afford to take for fear of losing income. Successful businesses constantly listen to what their customers say, respond quickly to complaints and adapt their business practice to reflect what their customers want.

There are challenges in taking this approach too literally, but it presents a more responsive approach to participation than an overwhelming, and often donor-led, focus on the delivery of humanitarian assistance on time, and to budget.

The potential of the localisation agenda to improve participation as a result of devolving capacity down to local levels needs to be balanced against the concern that moving resources and decision making closer to the community level might actually reinforce existing power relations while still leaving affected populations without a strong voice.

Some governments may also feel threatened by the promotion of participatory approaches (CHS Alliance 2018) and want to control access. This presents frequent challenges to humanitarian organisations and requires a coordinated consistent response from all levels of the humanitarian system, including donors, which the system often struggles to deliver.

Is participation enough or does the process need to go further and place affected populations, particularly those most vulnerable, at the centre of decision-making processes, and enable them to fully influence how resources are allocated?

We will be looking at the successes and challenges in relation to participation in more detail over subsequent courses.

Your task

Based on your own experience, as well as research through this course, consider:

  • What are the main reasons why you think participation is important?

  • In an emergency context (eg, a conflict), what is a realistic level of participation?

  • What are the main constraints to effective participation by affected populations?


CHS Alliance (2015) On the Road to Istanbul: Humanitarian Accountability Report. Geneva: CHS Alliance

CHS Alliance (2018) Humanitarian Accountability Report. Geneva: CHS Alliance

CHS Alliance, Geneva ICRC/IFRC (2016) A Red Cross Red Crescent Guide to Community Engagement and Accountability. Geneva: ICRC and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

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Disaster Management and Accountability

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